Eleanor “Dicky” Ehrlich

Women of Achievement
2004

HERITAGE
for a woman whose achievements still enrich our lives:

Eleanor “Dicky” Ehrlich

Eleanor “Dicky” Weile Ehrlich never stopped feeling lucky that she survived nine different German concentration camps.

So she never stopped teaching about the Nazi Holocaust. ‘‘There is too much to tell,’’ Dicky said. ‘‘There is so much yet not told. Just remember, it all did happen … and please keep it from happening again.’’

Dicky began life in Berlin where her mother owned a needlework shop and her father was a traveling manufacturer’s representative. As Hitler’s restrictions and persecution of Jews intensified, she and her parents moved in 1933 to Amsterdam where Dicky became a neighbor and sometime playmate of Anne Frank.

But soon the Nazis ended Holland’s 100-year neutral history by marching in with occupation soldiers. Eight times Dicky answered the door late at night to find Gestapo soldiers there. Eight times she talked or sang to them and they went away. A ninth time she didn’t awaken until two soldiers were looming over her bed.

The Weile family was loaded onto cattle cars to a camp in southern Holland. It was February 1943. The family was separated. Within eight months, her mother Tilla, who was assigned to tend to young children in the camp, caught scarlet fever. With only aspirin and sulfur available as medicines, Tilla died in November and was cremated. Dicky never forgot the smell of the smoke that blew over her as her mother’s body was incinerated.

Meanwhile, the Philips Company had persuaded the Germans to build in the camp a factory which would keep Dutch Jews in Holland as long as possible at a time when Jews from all over Europe were being shipped to death camps in Germany and Poland. Dicky always believed it was her training to build intricate radio tubes for V1 and V2 rocket weapons that delayed her departure to Auschwitz for a critical 10 months and saved her life. She was convinced that if she had arrived sooner, she would have been gassed with thousands of others.

Dicky reported with pride that she and her fellow inmates were able to damage about 60 percent of the instruments they made, without being detected, assuring that many of the German rockets never reached their mark.

In June 1944, she was shipped to Auschwitz, Poland, where three large chimneys turned the night sky orange and the stench of burning flesh was unreal. Though it was a while before she knew it, Dicky arrived in the notorious camp on D-Day, June 6. Her hair clipped short, number 81020 tattooed on her left arm, she was soon loaded on cattle cars again, bound for Reichenback in east Germany. She was moved four more times as the Germans dodged advancing Allied forces and kept the inmates manufacturing parts.

Finally, she arrived near Hamburg for the hardest work yet – shoveling mud to dig tank traps, ditches three yards wide and three yards deep, shaped like a V. Guards stood above, snapping whips to speed the exhausted workers.

Dicky was barely holding on. Fortunately, the Swedish Red Cross made a deal with Hitler to trade some concentration camp prisoners for German deserters. Dicky was on the second transport to Sweden. It was three days before the end of the war. She was 23 years old and weighed 88 pounds. She had spent over 2-1/2 years in nine concentration camps. She later learned that her father had been killed in the Auschwitz gas chamber on Oct. 1, 1944.

In 1948, she agreed to move to Atlanta to live with an aunt. Her ship arrived in the New York harbor as July 4 fireworks blasted. She met and married Sidney Ehrlich and began life as a wife, mother of two children and unstoppable public speaker. She became a deeply patriotic American who always flew a giant flag on Independence Day.

Wherever she lived in the United States, Dicky shared her story. She also taught teachers how to teach about the Holocaust: ‘‘To teach this to young people and to impress upon them how very lucky they are to live in this country with all of its freedoms, we must dig a little deeper – what does it do on a personal basis when all the freedoms we take for granted are taken away?’’

She described the forced walk of 2,000 inmates and 3,000 cows through snow for six days with paper shoes to wear and one slice of bread and snow to eat. She told about a trip that should have been three hours that went on for 11 days and nights, standing in a freight car with 209 other prisoners with three pieces of bread, no water and no modesty when allowed under a stopped train car to ‘‘use the bathroom’’ at gunpoint.

In 1997, she was interviewed and videotaped for Steven Spielberg’s Survivors of the Shoah Visual History Foundation. Dicky Ehrlich died in Memphis on May 1, 2001. She was 78.

Friend and colleague Rachel Shankman, regional director of Facing History and Ourselves, said, ‘‘No one who ever met her will ever forget her. What made her special to the children and teachers was her ability to bring that hard history to life, and talk about it with humor and resiliency.’’

A teacher who heard Dicky speak in Arkansas several years ago wrote a two-page letter expressing the power of Dicky’s testimony in changing her life. ‘‘I know that I will move through the world differently now. I hope that I will be a better person. I believe that what you have done here is to become a rescuer. Somehow, some way, your words continue to make me grow.’’

Mary Alice Hubbard McWilliams

Women of Achievement
2004

STEADFASTNESS
for a woman with a lifetime of achievement:

Mary Alice Hubbard McWilliams

Mary Alice Hubbard McWilliams crafted successful citizens and executives in many fields during more than 50 years as a senior high school mathematics teacher and leader in her church and community.

Teachers, engineers, legal and medical professionals, and government officials name her as the singular key influence in their education and success. Among them are Mayor W. W. Herenton, former city school Supt. Johnnie B. Watson, City Councilman Joe Brown, school principal Cassandra Smith and Spelman College professor Dr. Gloria Wade Gayles. They called her “difficult’’ and “tough as nails.’’ She says, “I’m firm. It must be right … I don’t play school.’’

Herenton has said, “What I loved about her was Mrs. McWilliams stayed after class with me and some of the other students who had difficulties. She would take her planning period and keep working through her lunch hour. She worked after school. She really cared about us.’’

Mary Alice grew up in Memphis in a family of nine children. She earned her bachelor’s degree in mathematics at LeMoyne-Owen College and a master’s degree from the University of Illinois with post-graduate work at Memphis State College.

She began teaching at Magnolia School in 1950 but soon transferred to Booker T. Washington High School where she taught Herenton and former school board member Carl Johnson. In 1971, she was moved to Memphis Tech, but returned to Washington High at Herenton’s request in 1986 and retired from Carver High in 1999.

She is one of four generations of educators in her family. “I always loved working with children. I believed everybody could learn and deserved to be taught.’’ She was the first black woman elected president of the Memphis Education Association. It was during her term that teachers bought the building on Flicker and negotiated their first master contract with the city Board of Education.

She was a strong advocate, leader and spokesperson in the Civil Rights struggle. She was a member of Women on the Move for Equality and committees that dealt with discrimination and social equality.

At Second Congregational United Church of Christ and with the national denomination, she was at the forefront in the struggle to deal with racism and sexism. She served on numerous committees, boards and as panel moderator and spokesperson. She traveled extensively for the church as president of the UCC Black Women’s Caucus and as a member of the national UCC’s Task Force on Women in the Church and Society, and the Advisory Commission on Women. She was honored as an outstanding national leader.

Mary Alice Hubbard McWilliams held her students to rigorous standards and high expectations, boosting them toward achievement and success while working just as hard for change and progress in the larger community and her church.

Mickey Babcock

Women of Achievement
2004

VISION
for a woman whose sensitivity to women’s needs
led her to tremendous achievements for women:

Mickey Babcock

As a bright preschooler growing up in Detroit, Mickey Babcock was reading by the time she reached kindergarten. She quickly surpassed her primary school classmates and skipped the third grade.

“In so doing, I paid a social price,” she said. “I never ‘fit in’ with the other girls, which I suspect has always made me highly sensitive to the plight of others who don’t fit in for whatever reason.”

Mickey has combined her sensitivity with drive, energy and vision to become a successful entrepreneur, an encouraging mentor, a quiet philanthropist and a behind-the-scenes organizer of projects to help women and girls.

Shunning the spotlight, Mickey’s style is to bring others together for good. She rarely carries the title of ‘chair’ or ‘president,’ but frequently earns the shared title of founder or organizer. She is among the few who are there at the beginning, taking chances and encouraging others to do the same.

Mickey’s inspiration comes, in part, from her maternal grandmother, Mary Scarb Lewandowski, who left her native Poland alone at the age of 16. She asked for her dowry, booked passage to America, and crossed the Atlantic for a new life in Detroit.

While Mickey’s grandmother was a role model of courage and vision, other women she observed seemed to lack the strength to improve their lives. She wondered: Why do some women find the courage to change, while others remain in seemingly unbearable situations? Mickey’s accomplishments are the result of her efforts to help women find the support they need to improve their lives.

In 1995, she was instrumental in creating the Women’s Foundation for a Greater Memphis. She secured donations and helped develop a network of supporters. Four years later, she demonstrated her commitment to the foundation when she agreed to serve as interim executive director for several months.

Her work with the Women’s Foundation led to new connections and more projects. She was a founding board member of the RISE Foundation, which helps women in public housing improve their lives through economic self-sufficiency. She also became a member of the Memphis Housing Authority board. As a successful business owner, Mickey provided support for the creation of the Opportunity Banc, a micro-loan program at MIFA.

Today, Mickey’s vision and encouragement extend west to Wyoming where she and her husband, Joe McCarty, spend several months each year. Mickey founded a nonprofit organization with a vision “to see communities across Wyoming actively valuing and respecting the roles of women and girls, and to see Wyoming women and girls continually elevating those roles in their communities.”

Margaret Rhea Seddon

Women of Achievement
2004

HEROISM
for a woman whose heroic spirit was tested and
shown as a model to all in Shelby County and beyond:

Dr. Margaret Rhea Seddon

From Memphis to the dark reaches of space, Dr. Rhea Seddon has demonstrated her heroic spirit and has shown little girls everywhere that they, too, can reach their dreams.

Rhea Seddon, a native of Murfreesboro and 1973 graduate of the University of Tennessee School of Medicine in Memphis, became one of the nation’s first female astronauts when she was selected for training in 1978.

In the next 19 years, she logged more than 722 hours in space on three Space Shuttle flights. She flew as a mission specialist on the Shuttle in 1985 and 1991 and as payload commander in 1993.

Rhea grew up in the 1950s, graduating from Murfreesboro’s Central High School in 1965. Space exploration was a new American dream. Rhea was fascinated with how people would react and feel in space. But as a practical teen, she didn’t think there was any way she could ever find out. “They didn’t want women astronauts then,’’ Rhea said. “And early on, the only way you could get into space was to be a test pilot. Medicine became my real love … They were letting a few women into medical school, fewer still into surgery. I always felt very lucky to get into those fields.’’

She earned a bachelor’s degree in physiology from the University of California, Berkeley, in 1970 and her medical degree in Memphis in 1973. She completed a surgical internship and three years of a general surgery residency in Memphis with a particular interest in nutrition in surgery patients. Between the internship and residency, she served several Mississippi and Tennessee hospitals as an emergency department physician.

Just as she finished her medical training, NASA decided to admit women and scientists into the shuttle program and Rhea, 29, unmarried and without a steady job, was in a perfect position to apply. “Sometimes the stars align just right so that preparation and opportunity come together at just the right moment,’’ she says.

Her third flight, aboard Columbia, flew Oct. 18 to Nov. 1, 1993 as a life science research mission with Rhea as payload commander. It received NASA management recognition as the most successful and efficient Spacelab flown to date. The seven-person crew performed medical experiments on themselves and 48 rats. Rhea assisted in the first animal dissections in space, hailed by NASA as a scientific triumph.

After three Shuttle flights and various assignments at NASA, she was detailed to Vanderbilt University by NASA in 1996 to assist in preparation of cardiovascular experiments which flew aboard the Columbia in April 1998. She retired from NASA in November 1997, returned to her hometown of Murfreesboro and is assistant chief medical officer for the 800-physician Vanderbilt Medical Group in Nashville. She and her husband, former astronaut Robert L. Gibson, have three children.

Cheryl Cornish

Women of Achievement
2004

COURAGE
for a woman who, facing active opposition,
backed an unpopular cause in which she deeply believed:

Rev. Cheryl Cornish

Rev. Cheryl Cornish serves God by serving the community at large. Her sensitivity to those shunned by some religious groups has made her a very special leader. She has ministered beyond the boundaries of the traditional church and instituted innovative programs that give Christian compassion a broader scope.

A native of Nebraska, Cheryl came to Memphis in 1988 to serve as first female pastor of the First Congregational Church, United Church of Christ. A graduate of Williams College in Massachusetts, she received her master of divinity degree from Yale University in 1983.

Under her leadership, the church affectionately known as First Congo has taken stands on a number of issues that rub against the grain of many in the “Bible Belt.” As one of the first churches nationally to become an “open and affirming” congregation, First Congo has been on the forefront of affirming equal participation of gay and lesbian people in the church. She has officiated at same-sex weddings since 1991. As a “Just Peace” congregation, the church has engaged in significant ministries of justice and non-violent social change, including serving as homebase for the local “Women in Black,” an international group that stands silent every week witnessing on behalf of world peace.

Cheryl has boldly advocated for women’s issues and AIDS awareness despite condemnation from more conservative churches. She created a forum for international social justice activists, such as Pastors for Peace Caravan to Cuba and Far East Buddhist monks. The church’s Global Goods program encourages the fair marketing of products from third-world countries. Deeply involved in the community, Cheryl leads by example. She has served as a trustee of LeMoyne-Owen College, director of MIFA, chair of the Mid-South Peace and Justice Center, and president of the Memphis Ministers Association. She is the founding chair of RAIN (Regional Interfaith AIDS Network) and an officer of the Midsouth Interfaith Network for Economic Justice.

The church grew from about 60 to about 300 members and moved to a larger space in the Cooper-Young neighborhood in 2001. It has become a vital part of the community by taking on many projects not usually associated with a church, including the Bicycle Co-Op, which repairs and provides bikes for impoverished young people and the Media Digital Arts program, which provides equipment and encourages filmmaking for aspiring artists. First Congregational Church has become home to more than 20 different organizations working in partnership for positive change.

Cheryl has said, “There has always been a very strong notion in the Congregational Church that we each embody the face of God. And if you exclude any piece of the human family, you’re excluding one face of God … I think that’s part of the reason we have this image of being wild liberals. It’s not that we’re terribly liberal, it’s just that we won’t lock the door on anybody.”

Carol Prentiss

Women of Achievement
2004

DETERMINATION
for a woman who solved a glaring problem despite
widespread inertia, apathy or ignorance around her:

Carol Prentiss

Carol Prentiss is a leading philanthropist with an equal knack for raising funds from others. With a record-setting history of support for local causes, it is her long-lasting determination to raise awareness of the too-often hidden tragedy of child sexual abuse that reverberates the most.

Carol, like her husband Jim Prentiss, long has given generously of her personal wealth. Carol also has worked tirelessly to raise money for such important not-for-profits in our city as the Memphis Zoo, the YWCA’s Spouse Abuse Shelter, Brooks Museum and the Memphis Child Advocacy Center. Carol considers the Child Advocacy Center her “special cause.”

Her heartfelt conviction that the abuse of children should be fought openly and prevented by every means possible led to efforts that will have profound effects for decades to come.

Carol rose from modest beginnings. After working for Shoney’s South for 22 years she found herself the highest-ranking woman in the company as a division director overseeing 26 restaurants in the Carolinas. After her move to Memphis and marriage to Shoney’s chief executive, Jim, in 1986, she dove into charity work with an equal amount of energy. Soon, the two of them were a dynamic duo in fundraising circles.

When Carol discovered the newly formed Child Advocacy Center in 1990, she found a cause to call home. She stepped in to help where needed and has not slowed yet.

The CAC’s founding executive director, Nancy Chandler, reports Carol “came to the rescue of the struggling-to-be-born” center. Chandler said Carol immediately recognized the overwhelming need and provided voluntary leadership that has grown and matured over time.

Current executive director Nancy Williams credits Carol for shepherding her through her first few years on the job. “Carol has never moved from the role of advocate when she talks with people in our community about sexually abused children – not a popular conversation topic,” Nancy says. She adds that Carol “is a champion of children … what matters most to Carol – and what she lives out – is that she makes a difference in the life of one child.”

A decade and a half after joining the cause, Carol has made a difference in the life of countless children. She worked to bring about a successful opening of the center in the former Four Flames Building in 1992, and the construction of a new wing in 2000. She has supported the development of a multidisciplinary team, which reviews more than 2,000 reports of abuse annually. Every year she chairs a lavish gala event that raised $35,000 its first year and last year netted more than $200,000 for the CAC. She speaks tirelessly on behalf of the center and has made dozens of face-to-face requests for major donations.

Apathy, ignorance, inertia – all have vanished in the wake of this one-woman embodiment of determination.

Deanie Parker

Women of Achievement
2004

INITIATIVE
for a woman who seized the
opportunity to use her talents and created her own future:

Deanie Parker

Deanie Parker’s life has been filled with music. As a child she listened to Memphis radio station WDIA. Her days brimmed over with gospel, R&B and contemporary jazz, hosted by now-legendary DJs such as Nat D. Williams and Rufus Thomas. Her grandmother always had records on the old Victrola and Deanie listened and dreamed. Always imaginative, a broomstick was her microphone. When her family moved north, she missed the music and tuned in to Nashville’s WLAC to hear the voices of the Delta. She studied piano only to be whacked on the hands for playing B.B. King, Chuck Jackson and other popular music by ear!

The family returned to Memphis from southern Ohio in 1961. While attending Hamilton High School, Deanie formed a group called the Valadors and entered a talent contest at the Old Daisy Theatre on Beale. First prize: an audition at Stax. Advice from Stax founder Jim Stewart: “You have to have your own material.” With that, Deanie went home and started writing, first “My Imaginary Guy,’’ a regional success. Deanie’s career in the music business was underway.

She worked most of her senior year at the then-Satellite Record Shop. After graduation she spent a year as a DJ for WLOK before returning to Stax in 1964 to become its first publicist. One of only two office employees, she learned on the job while continuing to write for artists such as Carla Thomas, Albert King and the Staple Singers. One of the first female publicists in the music business, she gained new skills and used her salary to pay her university tuition. She credits the late Estelle Axton as a role model.

With the closing of Stax, Deanie went on to be promotions director for WPTY-TV, marketing director for Memphis in May and vice president of communications and marketing for The Med. But through the years, music remained her passion.

When offered the job of executive director for Soulsville, USA, a then-risky proposition, she jumped at the chance. Under her leadership the organization has thrived. People with mission and spirit that reflect that of the original Stax have collected priceless memorabilia for Memphis and the world to study and enjoy in the Stax Museum of American Soul Music, thus fulfilling Deanie’s lifelong dream of celebrating Memphis’ iconic status in American contemporary music. The Stax Music Academy reaches out to young musicians and brings them along while helping stabilize the community.

Through Deanie Parker’s initiative, the heart and soul of Stax – an essential and historic part of Memphis’ heart – lives on.